NFL Leads All Sports Leagues in Government Lobbying and Political Involvement

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IJune 1, 2012

First Lady Michelle Obama Lauches Let's Move with the NFL
First Lady Michelle Obama Lauches Let's Move with the NFLChris Graythen/Getty Images

All of the major sports organizations in the U.S. engage in some lobbying.  By far, the NFL leads the way, spending more than its three closest rivals combined. 

In a recent survey of sports lobbying activities, Washington, DC-based First Street Research Group reported that the league has internal lobbyists and employs outside firms to address issues such as broadcasting, Internet gambling, drug testing and player safety.

The NFL makes the bulk of its money by selling rights to broadcast games, and spends much more to protect its rights than any other league.  Online piracy is a major concern.  The league generates billions of dollars in revenue from its contracts with DirecTV, ESPN, NBC, CBS and FOX, and works hard to promote anti-piracy measures. 

Even with all the broadcast options, a Cowboys fan in Washington, DC, can watch only the Redskins or national game selected by the network.  Thus, to watch the Cowboys play the Cardinals, a fan would have to subscribe to the DirecTV Sunday Ticket to see their favorite out-of-town team.  Illegal online streams circumvent the DirecTV contract.

Earlier this year, the debate over SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act—caused a high-profile debate in which Google went blank for a day.  The passage of SOPA would have given groups more measures to stop online piracy.  While the legislation did not go through, the NFL has gotten issue on the agenda so that Congress learns more about the issue and demonstrates why piracy is such a threat.

"It's hard to push and see results immediately when lobbying," says Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst at First Street Research Group, which collects lobbying data and examines impact on national policy.  "Lobbying is a long-term strategy.  With use of Internet video increasing, more people are willing and able to watch higher streams on their computer and can hook the Internet up to their TVs.  Eventually, fans may choose to watch games on their phones.  The NFL is seeking to protect its most valuable assets through its lobbying activities."

The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell have also been very conscious about Internet gambling and wants to be heavily involved if Internet gambling facilitated by U.S.-based companies is allowed.  Naturally, labor issues arise resulting from the league's collective bargaining agreements.  Lobbyists approach Congressional leaders, as well as Federal agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor. 

Perhaps the most high profile current issue is related to concussions.  Concerns about concussions and their long-term effects on players have been a hot issue amongst the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and alumni.  The NFL's lobbying efforts focus on concussion legislation and any pre-concussion safety standards and helmet regulations that might be set.  The league wants to shape how standards are set and shares its viewpoints with government leaders before legislation is introduced in Congress. 

Baseball is a distant second to football in the lobbying arena.  Like the NFL, Major League Baseball (MLB) is concerned with copyright issues.  With Congressional focus on drug testing reaching a high level in the mid-2000s, MLB also engages in lobbying efforts related to drug testing.  One area on which baseball focuses more than other sports leagues is immigration policy since the sport has a large percentage of players that come from abroad, including Cubans who are effectively defecting when they come to the U.S. to play.

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) came in a surprising third in lobbying expenditure.  Since it pay-per-view events comprise the bulk of its revenues, UFC lobbies hard to prevent online and satellite piracy.  If fans "steal" the matches, it's a major impact on revenues since the league does not generate much in the way of licensed merchandise when compared to the major sports leagues.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 21:  Jon Jones (L) kicks Rashad Evans during their light heavyweight title bout for UFC 145 at Philips Arena on April 21, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Three relatively high profile sports organizations spent less than $100,000 on lobbying efforts in 2011. The National Basketball Association (NBA) spent just $85,000 last year, despite its large domestic audience and recent labor strife.  NASCAR's lobbying expenditure totaled $90,000 last year. The National Hockey League (NHL) spent a pittance: less than $5,000.



Q1 2012

National Football League (NFL)



Major League Baseball (MLB)



Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)



U.S. Olympic Committee



Bowl Championship Series (BCS)



Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour



National Thoroughbred Racing Association



NFL Players Association (NFLPA)



National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)






National Basketball Association (NBA)



Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA)



Professional Golfers Association of America (PGAA)



U.S. Soccer Foundation



International Boxing Federation



United States Tennis Association



Source: First Street Research Group

The fact that millions of dollars are spent on lobbying in Washington is a reflection of the impact legislation can have on the various sports entities.  Sports can be hurt or rewarded by Federal legislation.  Every major sports entity is somehow involved.  First Street Research will report its findings, which based on reporting by the leagues themselves, on a quarterly basis. 

As some of the major sports leagues face upcoming labor issues and the NCAA BCS plans an overhaul of its bowl series, the aggregate level of sports lobbying activity is bound to rise.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.


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